So much of what outdoor gear manufacturers do is find ways to imitate nature. Through evolution, animals have adapted to conditions in ways that the best gear makers dream of replicating. Down is one of those adaptations that we may never truly surpass. It’s one of the most effective forms of insulation, and today we’re going to delve into its origins and talk about the two primary types of down: Duck down and goose down.
But first, let’s explore what down is and why it works the way it does.
What Is Down?
Down is the soft and fluffy layer of feathers found beneath the outer, more rigid feathers of birds, particularly waterfowl like ducks and geese. Known for its exceptional insulating properties, down is composed of fine filaments that form three-dimensional clusters, creating a structure that traps and retains warmth.
This natural insulation is extremely lightweight, compressible, and possesses a remarkable ability to provide warmth without adding bulk. All of these features mean that it’s perfect for use in bedding, jackets, sleeping bags, and other outdoor gear.
Why Is Down Good At Insulating?
At first glance, you might not think that down– which is wispy and thin, and really mostly air– would be a good insulator. But down’s structure is actually why it’s so good at insulating. Down consists of fine, fluffy filaments connected with a central quill, forming three-dimensional clusters. These filaments trap and retain air; the spaces between them create countless tiny air pockets. Because air is a poor conductor of heat, these pockets are a great barrier against heat loss. This is the same principle that goes into synthetic insulation that is designed to mimic down, like PrimaLoft.
The loftiness– essentially, the fluffiness– of down also contributes to its insulating capacity by maximizing the volume of air that can be trapped within a given weight or volume of material. This results in a high warmth-to-weight ratio, meaning that down can provide significant insulation without adding excessive weight or bulk. Finally, down is springy and resilient. Even when you compress it, it pops back to its original shape with a little fluffing. It is one of the best choices for maintaining warmth in a lightweight and compressible form, which is why it is widely used in the production of bedding and outdoor gear
Down Fill Power
One of the main differences between duck and goose down is fill power. We have a full guide to understanding down fill power, but here’s the quick explanation. Fill power is the metric that lets you understand the insulating capacity of the down in your insulation. Measured in cubic inches per ounce, fill power indicates the volume that one ounce of down occupies when fully lofted. A higher fill power corresponds to larger and more resilient down clusters, capable of trapping more air, which translates to superior insulation. In essence, a higher fill power means that the down has greater loft, providing increased warmth without adding extra weight. Products with higher fill power have better insulation, better compressibility, and durability. You will want to look for higher fill power ratings for items like parkas and cold-weather sleeping bags to ensure optimal warmth and performance in various conditions.
Where Does Down Come From?
Down comes from aquatic birds, and realistically, that means ducks and geese.
Duck down primarily comes from domestic ducks, particularly those raised for their meat, such as Pekin ducks and Muscovy ducks. The process of collecting duck down is typically done during the ducks’ molting season or after they have been slaughtered for meat. The down is carefully removed from the birds, and it is then thoroughly cleaned and processed to meet the quality standards required for use in insulation material.
Duck down is produced in several countries around the world, with China being a major contributor to the global market. Other significant producers of duck down include the United States, Hungary, and Poland. These countries have well-established poultry industries that contribute to the supply of duck down.
Goose down primarily comes from domesticated geese, with the most common breeds used for down production being the Emden, Toulouse, and sometimes the Chinese breeds. These geese are often typically the ones raised for both meat and down production.
Goose down is also produced in various countries, and some of the major contributors include China, Hungary, Poland, and Canada. Canada, in particular, is known for its high-quality goose down, some of which is wild-collected and much of which is raised by Canadian Hutterites (more on them in a bit).
What About Eiderdown?
If you’ve ever seen a down item, like a quilt or parka, with a truly exorbitant price tag, it’s likely you were looking at eiderdown. Eiderdown is a luxurious and highly prized type of down obtained from the eider duck, particularly the common eider (Somateria mollissima) and the king eider (Somateria spectabilis). Eiderdown is known for its exceptional insulation properties, softness, and lightness. It is considered one of the finest and warmest natural insulators available.
Eiderdown is collected from the nests of wild eider ducks, primarily in Iceland. (Eiderdown is also collected in parts of Canada, Norway, Greenland, and other countries around the Arctic Circle.) The female eiders use down to line their nests, and after the breeding season is over, the eiderdown is collected from abandoned nests. The collection process is typically carried out by skilled harvesters, sometimes called eiderdown farmers, who carefully gather the down without disturbing the ducks or their habitats. This practice is regulated to ensure sustainable and ethical harvesting. Unlike typical duck and goose down, the eiders are never harmed and the eiderdown is not a byproduct of hunting or farming for meat.
Collecting eiderdown in this manner allows for the ducks to continue their natural behaviors and provides a sustainable source of this coveted material. Eiders are not domesticated ducks, and so this method of wild collection is the only to ensure a future supply of eiderdown. Due to the unique characteristics of eiderdown and the careful and sustainable harvesting methods, it is the most expensive type of down. While it has a maximum fill power of about 700, due to the long fiber length and the way it sticks to itself, it’s said to have a feel that’s more like a fill power of 1200, at a fraction of the weight. However, some people find eiderdown to be too clumpy and hard to distribute; it’s likely that you’ll probably get along just fine with regular down.
How Is Down Collected? The Ethics of Down Insulation
There are several ways to collect down. First, some down is a byproduct of the meat industry. Geese and ducks are farmed to be eaten all over the world, and down is collected as these animals are processed into food. This ensures that the feathers don’t go to waste. Geese and ducks are not killed for their feathers; the down is simply a byproduct from animals that were already going to be eaten.
The second form of down collection is similar to how eiderdown is collected. Geese and ducks regularly molt out their down feathers, and these can be collected, cleaned, and processed for use as insulation. This is somewhat time-consuming and relies on a lot of manual labor– but at the same time, it’s a sustainable practice. However, it has a dark side. Ducks and geese molt twice a year, naturally. That means two feather harvests. If the farm wants to collect more feathers, they may turn to the third type of down collection.
The third form of down collection is live plucking, which is extremely unethical and bad for the animals. Many leading outdoor gear manufacturers are working towards a more sustainable, ethical future for down-insulated gear, and one of the key tenets of this is ethical, human treatment of the animals. For instance, Patagonia has a 100% Traceable Down Standard, with unannounced audits of down suppliers to make sure no birds are live-plucked. Patagonia also refuses to use birds that were force-fed as part of the foie gras industry, which is also considered to be cruel to the animals.
Another big gear manufacturer, The North Face, partnered with the Textile Exchange and ICEA (a third-party certification organization) to create the international Responsible Down Standard. This practice has been adopted by many retailers, including REI. It is entirely possible to buy ethical down products, and leading retailers actually try to make it easy. For example, Allied Feather created the Track My Down database, which lets consumers plug in a lot number and see the history of the down used in their product.
Some manufacturers, like Canada Goose, ensure ethical compliance by using a very limited number of sources for their down. One way that many companies do this is by using a type of down called Hutterite down. This down is sourced from the Canadian Hutterites, a religious sect with practices much like the Amish or Mennonites– but less strict. Their traditions dictate that they farm their geese and ducks free-range and to full maturity in the cold Canadian prairies, meaning that the down they produce is naturally longer and fluffier than most other down.
Essentially, to know if you’re getting an ethical down product, you do need to do a little bit of research. You should try to find out if the down was produced to a standard, and find out what that standard entails. The good news is that the industry has responded well to demands for transparency, and more and more manufacturers are making it easy to find out where your down came from and how the animals who produced it were treated.
(Another way to buy down ethically? Shop second-hand. Down maintains its insulating power for years, and if you buy second-hand, you aren’t contributing to the industry demand.)
Goose Down vs. Duck Down
So, now that you know everything about down production, you’re faced with the question: Goose down or duck down? What type of down is best for outdoor gear?
You might not always have a choice. Some manufacturers blend them– if your product says “waterfowl down” instead of “goose down” or “duck down,” it’s a blend of duck and goose. Most of the down available in outdoor products is duck down. This is because there’s a greater global demand for duck meat, and ducks develop more quickly and use less space than geese. Ergo, more of them are farmed, and more of their down ends up in the trade. Duck down is more cost-effective, making it easier and more affordable to work with.
Goose down, on the other hand, is going to be more expensive– but it’s also going to have more insulating capabilities, since the fibers are longer. The really high fill power down insulation is always goose down.
Duck and Goose Down Comparison Table
|Good warmth-to-weight ratio; effective insulation
|Excellent warmth-to-weight ratio; superior insulation
|Often more affordable than goose down
|Generally more expensive than duck down
|Widely available; more common in the market
|Available, but may be considered more premium and subject to seasonal fluctuations (goose meat demands increase in winter)
|Varies; can have a wide range of fill power
|Generally has a higher fill power than duck down
|Fill Power Consistency
|May have more variability in fill power; there’s a much wider range in quality between lower quality and high quality duck down
|Typically more consistent, especially at higher fill powers
|Slightly less lofty, may clump if lower quality
|More lofty and has a greater ability to trap air
|May be less durable over time due to shorter fibers
|Longer fibers are more durable
|Slightly heavier for the same warmth
|Lighter for the same warmth due to larger clusters
|Duck down may have a slight odor to it due to the natural oils produced by the duck, even after cleaning- take a good whiff of the down product you’re buying to see if it bothers you
|Less likely to have an odor due to the strict herbivorous diet of geese
At the end of the day, the deciding factor is likely to be cost versus warmth. If you need higher fill power for extremely cold conditions, goose down is what you want. But if the conditions aren’t truly miserable and you want to save some money, duck down is extremely good at its job. Both duck and goose down will keep you warm for many, many years to come.
Max DesMarais is the founder of hikingandfishing.com. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor adventure, travel, and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. Max grew up hiking all around New Hampshire and New England. He became obsessed with the New Hampshire mountains, and the NH 48, where he guided hikes and trail runs in the White Mountains. Since moving out west, Max has continued his frequent adventures in the mountains, always testing gear, learning skills, gaining experience, and building his endurance for outdoor sports. You can read more about his experience here: hikingandfishing/about